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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 April 2019

The dilemma facing Washington hawks as they try to contain the excesses of their president

The key takeaway from the current phase of US policy is that the administration takes a corporate approach to Middle Eastern policy, delegating tasks like a CEO

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Emirati ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus earlier today. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / pool via AFP 
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Emirati ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus earlier today. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / pool via AFP 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton tried to contain the excesses of their president and offset the fallout from his shock announcement about withdrawing troops from Syria and his improvised approach to Iraq. Their tours of the Middle East this month aimed to reassure allies, discourage foes and rein in unreliable partners, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

However, the key takeaway from the current phase of US policy, which shifts according to the mood of Donald Trump, is that the administration seems to model its Middle Eastern policy on corporate structure, behaving like a CEO delegating tasks on the ground to subcontractors. This much was clear in Mr Pompeo’s Cairo speech, when he said: “We strongly support Egypt’s efforts to destroy ISIS in the Sinai [and] Israel’s efforts to stop Tehran from turning Syria into the next Lebanon.” He spoke about continuing to “help our partners” tackle challenges, rather than leading and commanding, raising a question mark over the Trump administration’s pledge to “lead from the front”, itself intended as a counterpoint to former president Barack Obama’s approach of “leading from behind”.

Today, the differences between the two are no longer clear, especially in light of Mr Trump’s tweet about withdrawing from Syria, following a phone conversation with Mr Erdogan, only this marked the second time the US president has thrown the ball of leading in Syria to another head of state. The first time was to Russian President Vladimir Putin, this time it was to Mr Erdogan. Most likely, Mr Trump wants to delegate the difficult job in Syria to Russia and Turkey, a task that includes eliminating ISIS and Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and curbing Iran and Hezbollah.

However, the Russian and Turkish leaderships harbour some suspicions, not only in terms of the US intention to wash its hands of Syria but also amid fears of a possible trap the US might be setting up for them as part of a deliberate policy.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has questioned the seriousness of Washington’s plans, saying: “I cannot imagine that the United States will fully and indisputably leave Syria in terms of physical military presence in the current situation. I believe the positions of those who want to maintain US military presence in Syria — illegal, breaching the international law — are quite strong in Washington.”

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Turkey, too, has questioned US intentions, especially following Mr Bolton’s visit to Ankara. Mr Erdogan refused to meet the US national security adviser to discuss the Syria withdrawal after Mr Bolton demanded Turkey give guarantees to protest Syrian Kurdish fighters, regarded as terrorists by Turkey.

Addressing the Turkish parliament, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “We see that the US is having difficulties in its decision to withdraw from Syria. It must be difficult to leave after having been so intertwined with the terrorist organisation,” referring to the YPG, which Ankara views as the Syrian arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Mr Cavusoglu also said there were different voices within the US administration regarding Syria.

In this, Mr Erdogan made the same mistake as his Russian counterpart in assuming that the orders of the US president were the final word on the matter. Indeed, following the Helsinki summit between Mr Putin and Mr Trump, the Kremlin thought the bilateral relationship had taken a leap forward, with the US president deferring to the Russian president in seeking political solutions in Syria.

However, that initial euphoria soon gave way when the US establishment – what the Russians call the deep state – stepped in to rein in the president, assigning the Syrian dossier to a team of professionals from the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council. The Russian leadership was furious and escalated its rhetoric, accusing the US of sponsoring terrorists in Syria, although the two countries’ militaries continued to co-ordinate as part of their deconfliction aims.

Mr Erdogan was hasty to assume an agreement had been reached with “Trump’s America” – as they call it in Ankara – installing him as the kingmaker in Syria with the freedom to act as he pleases against the Kurds. The Turkish euphoria was even more short-lived than that of the Russians, as the US administration rushed to rein in not just its president but also the Turkish leader.

A US withdrawal from Syria would meant the responsibility for fighting ISIS fell on Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin, as well as the question of what to do with Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the Al Qaeda affiliate formerly known as Al Nusra Front. This week, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham concluded a deal that allows it to control 75 per cent of Idlib province and surrounding areas covering about 9,000 square kilometres of territory.

Furthermore, the parties to the Astana process – Russia, Turkey and Iran – are not in full alignment regarding Syria and do not have the resources to finance its reconstruction alone. The cost of staying in Syria today is too high for the three countries. Yet the future cost of remaining in a fragmented Syria could be higher, even if it’s free of terrorism, as it falls prey to Turkish and Iranian agendas and a government claiming victory without having sovereignty.

Syria, then, has not entered a new phase. It is neither on the cusp of rapid recovery nor the restoration of full sovereignty. Rushing to crown Bashar Al Assad a victor lacks seriousness. He is unlikely to be invited to the Arab League’s economic summit in Beirut next week, despite attempts to rehabilitate him, including by some entities in Lebanon.

Lebanon is now a country lacking in seriousness. It has become too polarised, fragmented and divided. Lebanese pro-Syrian politicians are scrambling to reject the summit if the Assad regime is not invited to Beirut. They do not stop there but are also gearing up for the return of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, ready to serve it once again and challenge anyone who opposes it.

Both the US and Russia are responsible for preventing such a scenario, out of respect for Lebanon’s independence and to safeguard its security. Russia must use its influence with its ally in Damascus to prevent its comeback or retaliation in Lebanon. The US must go beyond regarding Lebanon as an annex of Iran via Hezbollah and take serious preventive measures that discourage the Syrian regime from miscalculating its influence.

According to Mr Pompeo’s speech in Cairo, Washington will step up pressure on Hezbollah. He said: “Our aggressive sanctions campaign against Iran is also directed at the terror group and its leaders, including the son of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah. Iran may think it owns Lebanon. Iran is wrong.” He also spoke about the rocket arsenal that Iran has made available to Hezbollah, saying this was unacceptable and that the US would work to limit the threat it poses but did not clarify whether it would be Israel to handle that task.

The Trump administration today might see that its interest requires leading by delegation. This approach has a name: isolationism and it goes back to the tenure of Mr Obama but back then it was quiet and covert. The difference seems to be that Mr Trump’s isolationism is full of bluster, bullying and deception, all while verbally rejecting abandoning the task of leading the world from the standpoint of American greatness.

Updated: January 13, 2019 01:06 PM

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